A Beer Writer’s First GABF – The Great American Beer Festival

GABF - Choose Wisely...
GABF – Choose Wisely…

All photos by Nora McGunnigle. 

Entering the Colorado Convention Center Hall on for the first night of the Great American Beer Festival, I thought I had a plan. I had downloaded the very handy GABF app, I was going to march up and down the aisles and get to all the breweries I wanted to in an orderly fashion. I got halfway down the second enormous aisle before hyperventilating into a panic attack.

GABF  is a lot to take in. Not just the festival itself, though it works quite well as a metaphor for the enormous and diverse offerings surrounding what’s now known as “GABF week” in Denver. Every beer bar in town has multiple tap takeovers a day, every beer-related professional group has meetings and social events, and every brewery is heaving with beer tourists trying to take it all in before they haul their hungover selves home at the end of it all.

Garrett Oliver at GABF
Garrett Oliver at GABF

The Great American Beer Festival is the largest gathering of breweries and beers in the country, and has been growing exponentially over the last 5-10 years. For example, in 2007, sessions didn’t sell out until the week of the event. In 2013, sessions sold out within 20 minutes of releasing the tickets online back in July. There are so many craft breweries out there now that even the brewery slots were filled in a matter of minutes, leaving many brewing veterans out in the cold. Altogether, 49,000 people were at the festival’s four 4-hour sessions, with 624 breweries serving more than 3,100 different beers.

GABF organizers and Visit Denver (the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau) estimate that in 2012, festival goers provided a $7 million impact on Denver’s economy during that week. In my adventures at local establishments, I can easily see how that occurred. I heard from several sources that the events that happen outside of the Convention Center are as important and engaging as the one inside, if not more so. Two events I attended, the Colorado Rare Beer Tasting at the Rackhouse Pub and the Pints for Prostates Rare Beer Tasting at the McNichols Civic Center, were sold out events with amazing beer and fanatical attendees. I wasn’t able to get tickets to another highly anticipated event, the Crooked Stave What The Funk? sour beer tasting, it sold out too fast.

Deschutes cotton candy and carnival at GABF
Deschutes cotton candy and carnival at GABF

There were tap takeovers everywhere you looked. Firestone Walker v. Lagunitas barrel aged beer were in competition at FreshcraftDeschutes Brewing held a carnival event at Euclid Hall, and Falling Rock Tap House had so many tap takeovers that they staggered several of them per day. It was at Falling Rock that I had the pleasure of ordering a Russian River Pliny the Elder imperial IPA out of a beer truck, served in a plastic cup. At Freshcraft, I tried a crazy collaboration between the bar and Ska Brewing called DaSkave De Fuego that was brewed with habenero pepper and mango. At Euclid Hall’s Deschutes carnival, I had tangerine cotton candy sprinkled with pulverized hops, barley and rye ice cream, and the collaborative Conflux No. 1, Collage. 

Some of my favorite spots were outside the downtown area. I spent a wonderful evening leisurely drinking cask conditioned ale and British style beer talking and laughing with the bartenders and customers at Hogshead Brewery and had my best meal of the trip at Hops & Pie

Casks at Hogshead
Casks at Hogshead

– a pizza topped with mashed potato, skirt steak, mushrooms, onions, and peppers – paired with a St. Bretta Fall from Crooked Stave.

I was also fortunate enough to be invited to the New Belgium Brewery for a day of delicious beer and food. They provided a shuttle for the hour-long drive from Denver to Fort Collins, and we were able to taste beers that are difficult to find outside of the brewery or its immediate area, like the Accumulation White IPA or Avoine Oat IPA. The Avoine was a true revelation of a new spin on an old favorite style, and I felt privileged to try it.

The trick was to enjoy the beer I was drinking in the moment, and not race ahead in my mind to all the ones I wasn’t drinking. When in an overstimulating beer environment like Denver during GABF, it’s a difficult lesson to implement. I have lots of ideas for what to do next year, but I won’t kid myself into thinking that I can actually plan for all that’s in store.

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